Stereotypes of Service Damage Democracy

A guardsman from the 5th Force Support Squadron Honor Guard salutes a flag at Minot Air Force Base
A guardsman from the 5th Force Support Squadron Honor Guard salutes a flag at Minot Air Force Base, N.D., Mar. 29, 2017. (Jessica Weissman/U.S. Air Force)

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"Oh, really? You don't really hear about Afghanistan anymore."

The law student sitting next to me cocked his head to the side as he said it. I was at a loss for words but managed to move on with polite conversation.

"Well ... you don't. I do," I said with a smile. We chuckled and asked the flight attendant for another round of beers on our way to Boston. I was taking a few days to visit my parents before I deployed to Afghanistan with the Army; he was interviewing for his first job after law school.

I didn't fault him for his confusion. No one outside of military circles was paying much attention to Afghanistan anymore when we had that conversation in June 2013. The conflict would continue for nearly another decade.

The social wedge between America and its military is growing. It starts with a lack of awareness of military service built on stereotypes of who service members are and what they do, and it extends all the way into politicization and accusations of organizational partisanship.

Nearly 10 years after that deployment, I walked into the casual murmuring of an auditorium at Harvard Kennedy School. My fellow students had asked the military members to give a presentation on their respective services. Overhearing a few conversations, it was clear they expected to see footage of explosions and harrowing helicopter rescues, preferably to a heavy metal beat.

Some of the presenters obliged, and the awed faces of the audience showed little had changed since that plane ride. The room seemed more interested in the vaudevillian display of heroics than in debating the functions and roles of the military.

This summarized a cognitive dissonance throughout my time there. Like many of my peers, I arrived wondering what I could contribute to a classroom full of political activists, philanthropists and tech entrepreneurs. However, I soon discovered that most students were either afraid to ask about the military, fearing it was somehow inappropriate, or were interested only in my demolitions experience or opinions on the tactical situation in Ukraine.

Stereotypes have been planted and nourished by 20 years of well-intended advocacy. Thanking service members on the street and cheering for someone in uniform at sports games has convinced a generation of Americans that military service is a borderline religious calling, and those that accept it are special and should be revered.

At the same time, if you type "do all soldiers" into a search engine, two of the first six suggestions that auto-populate are "... get PTSD" and "... have PTSD." As a trade-off for bringing awareness to these issues, we have bred and reinforced stereotypes of troops as tired, broken heroes who need help and have given so much that there is little else to offer.

These assumptions create military archetypes that reduce consideration of nuances and make some civilians vulnerable to influence from partisan sources. Perceptions become reality. When an American reads an article claiming that the military has a political agenda, most do not know a current service member well enough to reach out and gain perspective. Instead, social media echo chambers and single-source media consumption create a reinforcing loop of confirmation bias.

If the American people believe the military is partisan, even if untrue, it damages our democracy. If society believes that the military supports one political party, the party's supporters are more likely to join the ranks and inject their ideology into decision-making. In addition, supporters of an alternate party are less likely to join, believing that the military is not a place for them. But what America needs is a representative smattering of supporters of all parties. A well-balanced, all-volunteer military should reflect the realities and diversities of the citizenry, a goal we have never met but continue to work toward.

A nonpartisan, civilian-led military is a cornerstone of any democracy, not just our American brand. This is why every service member pledges an oath to defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Service members are citizens. They represent the diversity and beauty of America, as well as its challenges. The ranks are filled with liberals, conservatives, poets, scholars, athletes, gamers, influencers, immigrants and polyglots. We also share the challenges of our country. We struggle with racism, extremism, crime and anti-intellectualism.

I don't wish that the man sitting next to me on the plane had known everything about Afghanistan. I wish he hadn't sounded so surprised when the topic was raised or had cared enough to ask more. I wasn't insulted when my fellow students wanted to see cool hype-up videos looking like an action movie. I wish it had been a prelude to a more meaningful discussion about the military's role, strengths and weaknesses as an instrument of national power.

-- Maj. Dan Dillenback is a military strategist and recent graduate from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He currently serves as a strategic planner in the War Plans Division of the Directorate of Strategic Plans and Policy for Headquarters, Department of the Army.

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